To be, or not to be: that is the question
— William Shakespeare, Hamlet
THE AFTERNOON SUN warmed my shoulders as I dodged a roundhouse kick. “Good. Just remember to snap your knee when you kick.”
Curtis rebalanced and nodded, then pulled back and launched into a flying sidekick that nearly knocked me on my ass.
Blocking, I pivoted and swung my leg low to knock him down before he regained his stability. “Excellent form and strength, but remember those kicks don’t always help in a fight. If you don’t nail it, you’ll likely give your enemy the opening he needs to take you out.”
To prove my point, I pinned him as he fell and mocked shoving my elbow into his chest. “Checkmate.”
I lifted myself off of him and held out my hand. He reached for it, and I pulled him up. We both dusted dirt and grass off ourselves.
The blond former bully had become a leader in this school since his graduation and willingness to come out of the closet as a homosexual. Even amongst a school of paranormals, who by definition are different than the rest of the world, some things were still hard for more narrow-minded students to accept.
Curtis drained a water bottle and looked toward the entry that stood open during the day.
“Are you expecting someone?” I asked. We had class in thirty minutes and he was my assistant for the beginning martial arts students. As we took on more students, I couldn’t keep up with the demand and needed him to take over all the beginning classes.
He nodded. “A new kid I’ve been talking to. He’s fifteen and anxious to get out of public school and join us here, but his mom is pretty opposed to it. His dad finally agreed to give him a ride to at least check it out and talk with Father Patrick. Having our own priest on hand helps with some of the more conservative families, though I do hope Professor Shaw gets back soon.”
I wiped my forehead with a small towel and we sat under the weeping willow, enjoying the shade and a gentle breeze. “How’s the conference going for him?” Curtis was point person for the local Paranormal Recruitment and Retention program, or PRR. It was actually his idea and it had gone global. He fought to make sure everybody with paranormal powers was protected and had a place to go and options for their education if they wanted. Our official Headmaster, Professor George Bernard Shaw, was at an international conference in Europe to argue for the unification of paranormals under a common goal.
“It’s a mixed bag,” Curtis said. “So many people are scared of us, it’s been hard to convince everyone to unite. But, this is just a first step. Even if we don’t get everything we want, we’ve at least laid a foundation for more work in the future.”
A car pulled through the gate and Curtis stood and jogged over. I joined him, curious about a potential new candidate for our school.
Rose and I first found this place last year when Rose's dark power threatened to consume her, and me, each time we touched. Getting sex advice from the priest who ran this special school had been... interesting. By the time we left, we knew we belonged here, that we could make a difference with these kids. It hadn't taken us long after our wedding to move into the small cottage they'd set up for us. Now I taught martial arts and Rose taught computers and design.
Rose and I were here not just as teachers, but as protectors, so that these kids could grow up safe.
Curtis smiled as the car door opened. Neither of us expected the angry woman with tears streaming down her face to emerge, screaming at us. “You bastard!” She pointed at Curtis. “You killed my boy. You and the other freaks here. You killed him!”
Leaving the car running and door open, she lunged at Curtis, slapping his face hard before either of us had time to react. Despite my training, I wasn’t expecting an assault from this woman, but I responded quickly and pulled her into a hold that wouldn’t hurt her. “Ma’am, I need you to step back.”
She struggled against me with more strength than I expected given her petite frame. Her mousy brown hair hung in strands over her face, and her eyes were red and swollen from crying.
Curtis put up his hand. “Let her go. She’s not dangerous.”
I didn’t agree with his assessment but I let her go, staying close just in case.
“Mrs. Kirkly, what happened? Where’s Taylor?” Curtis asked.
She scowled at him. “Don’t pretend like you don’t know. He’s dead, and you all killed him.”
Curtis’ face went pale. “Dead? When? How?”
“Murdered. They found him this morning.” She spit on the ground at his feet.
A man exited the car and ran up to her. “Honey, this isn’t their fault. I never should have agreed to this. Let’s go home.”
She spun on her husband. “You! You always take their side. These paranormal freaks. They aren’t natural. They aren’t of God, and now He’s punished us for our faithlessness.”
Mr. Kirkly’s shoulders sagged. “An animal killed him, not these kids. Come on. We have our son to bury.”
He looked up at us. “I’m so sorry. For everything. Tyler was killed last night, attacked by an animal while hiking.” He looked at Curtis. “You know how he liked to go into the woods, away from all people, and practice his levitation. They found his body this morning.”
Mr. Kirkly dragged his wife back to the car before we could respond, and they drove away.
Curtis looked sick. “I need a few minutes alone.”
I nodded. “Go. I’ll handle class today.”
"I'll see you at the meeting later."
"Sure." Father Patrick had called an important school meeting after this lesson, but refused to tell us its purpose. "Take care of yourself."
Curtis thanked me and left for the mansion as kids ran out to our practice area and started their stretches.
I took ten students through a series of kicks and punches as I tried to put aside the grief I’d just witnessed. As much as I wanted to protect everyone here, this reminded me that life still happened and I couldn’t foresee every possible threat to those I’d grown to love.
Is that what the meeting was about? Did a paranormal really murder Tyler?
A fluffy white cat sat under the weeping willow grooming herself and blatantly ignored me. When I paced too close to her spot, Angel's feline senses caught my wolf scent and she hissed, fur raised and tail pointing up in the air.
Serena broke form to run over to her. "I'm sorry, Mr. O'Conner. I wish she wouldn't react like that with you."
The young girl soothed her cat, running her hands over the white fur until Angel curled up and purred, eyes averted from me as if I no longer mattered.
"Don't worry about it, Serena," I said. "She can't fight her nature on this one. Why don't you rejoin class?"
She sighed. "Okay, but you know I'm no good at this. Never will be. Why can't I skip it and do something else?"
I sat on the bench under the tree to talk face to face with her. "You don't have to spar or fight anyone, but these classes give you discipline and strength, which will help you control your powers. That's important for everyone, but especially for you." I thought about Taylor and wondered if he’d be alive now if he’d lived here and had been given a safe place to practice his powers.
Her head dropped. "I'm sorry. You're right. I was just trying to help."
I used a finger to tilt her face up. "Don't be sorry. You have a big heart, but your power is the most dangerous, at least to you. If you overextend yourself, it will kill you."
A tear trickled down her cheek. "That's what my dad used to say. Before he died. He said I could never tell anyone about my healing powers, that they'd take me away and use me up until it killed me."
My jaw hardened. "That will never happen. That's why we're here, Serena, to protect you and all of these kids, to make sure no one can use you like that. But you have to do your part and learn how to control you power and defend yourself if necessary."
She nodded and slipped back into the group, going through the motions with the rest of her friends.
Serena had lost so much. Her father had died trying to save Sam, my best friend’s wife, and then her mother was killed right in front of her. She never gave in to despair, though, and for that I admired the hell out of her and knew she had an inner strength most people lacked.
All of these kids had gone through their own hell. Some had lost parents. Most had lost their home, the school where they thought they were safe.
When my class finished their lunges, I took them through a series of stretches. “You always want to stretch before and after working out to keep your muscles from cramping up. And don’t forget to drink a lot of water.”
We had no bells at this school, but I could tell classes were letting out as kids of all ages ran out of the grand mansion, some heading out to play in the woods, others going to their next class in one of the bungalows we’d just finished building.
Rose walked up, her dark hair pulled back in a ponytail, hazel eyes shining with love. She wore a blue sundress that brought out the curves in her figure nicely. I ignored the part of my mind that said she’d look even better without the dress.
She waved to me. “Father Patrick is ready for us.”
Without a word I grabbed her around the waist and pulled her behind the tree where we had more privacy.
She squealed, but didn’t resist as I pressed our bodies together and claimed her mouth with mine.
A growl rumbled low in my chest as our passion built. My hands cupped her perfect ass. "Mrs. O'Conner, I can't tell you how much I've missed you."
Her hand slid down my chest, down my abs, rubbing against my hard cock. "And I, you, Mr. O'Conner, but as I recall, it's only been a few hours since you last had me. Surely you can survive a little longer."
With a naughty grin, she leaned in, grazing her teeth against my neck, nipping at my skin as she stroked me.
Twisting out of my grip, she sauntered away. "Time for the meeting. Wouldn't want to keep them waiting."
I caught up with her, smacking her ass as I did. "I have no problem making them wait."
She grinned. "And I have no problem making you wait, my dear husband."
"It is time." Father Patrick sat at the head of the solid oak conference table, his hand resting on his cup of tea. "We need a name for," he let go of his tea and gestured around him, "all of this. Our mansion, our school, our life here."
So it's not about the murder. But... "Why now?" I asked, looking around the table at the people who had become my closest friends in the last few months. Drake and Sam sat together holding hands. I didn't often see them without baby Ana. They looked like young parents always looked: sleep-deprived, slightly disheveled and a little distracted. Ocean sat on the other side of Rose, playing with her long red hair and swinging her foot impatiently.
And Curtis sat next to Drake, their blond heads close together as they talked about something. He didn’t look as upset, and I hoped he’d had some time alone to process his loss.
Father Patrick went back to fidgeting with his teacup, a nervous gesture I'd never seen in him before. "I believe it's time we clarify our purpose. The students here need stability and an identity."
Rose squeezed my hand and smiled, her hazel eyes bright with a nearly undetectable golden glow that hadn't been there before she claimed her full witch power and had been cleansed of the demon power that threatened to destroy anyone she touched. "That makes sense," she said. "Why don't we call it The School for the Gifted?"
Ocean faked an exaggerated yawn at her best friend. "Because, boring. That's why."
"How about Save-A-Kid?" Drake suggested. "You know, 'cause we used to be Rent-A-Kid, and now—"
"No, Drake." Sam shook her head, rolling her eyes at her husband. "Just. No."
"What about Power School?" I proposed.
Ocean gagged. "Are we training Power Rangers?"
"You have a better idea, smarty pants?" The back and forth teasing with Ocean had been par for the course. She'd slipped into little sister category, since she and Rose were practically raised together as sisters.
Ocean grinned. "Sure do. Witches and Shifter Paranormals. Or W.A.S.P. We can call ourselves Wasps."
"Because we're all rich white protestants?" Okay, maybe given my family wealth I wasn't the best person to poke holes in that acronym, but still.
Ocean's grin dropped from her face. "Oh right, that's already taken, isn't it? What does it stand for again?"
Sam smiled. "White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. And besides, we're not all witches or shifters. Most of us are just paranormals."
Just paranormals? I fought the urge to laugh at that. As if mind reading was just a little thing, nothing of consequence. Not to mention all the other powers this group commanded.
"Let's keep trying." Father Patrick sipped his tea, his fluff of white hair more disheveled than usual, dark circles more prominent under his eyes. "We'll find a good name."
Curtis, who'd been quiet so far, spoke up. "How about Elysium?" He looked out the window as a crow flew by. "A place where all are welcome."
I knew he was thinking of Tyler, but still. "That's not entirely true, though. Not everyone is welcome here."
Curtis frowned, looking at me. "What do you mean, Derek?"
I thought back to my courtship of Rose, the power struggle in her coven, how her coven-leader mother turned on her and tried to make her a demon sacrifice for more power, how they attacked my clan trying to take the rose bush that held the power of our people. "I've known a few witches and shifters. Not all were nice," I said. "We can't accept someone just because they have powers."
"But then, where would they go?" Curtis asked, his face an open book of kindness and empathy.
I shrugged off his question. "I don't know. If they can't get along with people, then maybe they don't deserve to be here."
"I have trouble getting along with people," Curtis said. "A lot of people want nothing to do with me. Does that mean I shouldn't be welcome here?"
"No. Of course not, but—"
"Please." Father Patrick held up his hands. "Let's stay focused on the task at hand. We can hammer out school policy in another meeting." He looked down at a piece of paper he'd been holding. "So far we have School for the Gifted, Save-A-Kid, Power School, W.A.S.P and Elysium."
"I'd like to add Olympus," I said. "An elite school for those who are gifted." Because that's exactly what we are.
"Isn't Olympus like Ancient Greek Heaven?" Ocean asked.
"No," Curtis said. "Elysium is Greek Heaven. Olympus is the place of their gods."
Drake shuffled in his seat. "Well, I still like Save-A-Kid."
Someone knocked on the door once, briskly, then walked in. "I'm sorry to interrupt, but you need to see what's on the news right now." Desirai, a petite girl who could see into people's dreams—and cause some pretty hair-raising nightmares if the rumors were true—walked to the television console, opened it to find the remote, then turned it on.
A female newscaster with perfect hair and face, dressed in an appropriately professional suit, did the sad smile they do when reporting on bad news. "This is the third wild animal attack in Thurston County this week, and officials have no leads on the wolf responsible. The victim, 23-year-old Jared Barley, was mountain biking and had stopped to fix his tire when he was attacked. He had enough presence of mind to call 9-1-1 but by the time medics arrived he had died."
Desirai turned the volume down while we stared in shock at each other. An image of the young man, smiling and happy, flashed on the screen and Curtis' face went white.
Sam turned to him, her eyes sad. What did she hear in his mind? Was he thinking of Tyler?
Desirai looked at us expectantly. "Another wolf attack in the same week? This isn't how wolves behave."
I knew that better than anyone, and the thought sickened me. "What if it's not a wolf?" Maybe Mrs. Kirkly had been right. Maybe a paranormal had killed her son.
Rose turned her face to me, eyes wide. "A shifter?"
"It's possible," I said. "We're not the only ones. I'll look into it and see what I can find out." If it was a shifter, this could bring problems to my family, my clan.
Father Patrick creased his lips. "I'm sure it's nothing, but yes, best cover all our bases."
Curtis, his face still too pale, cleared his throat. "I know the last victim. Jared. He's my cousin. We used to go to school together, before I came here. We were on the football team together. I can't believe... "
I locked eyes with Curtis. He knew two of the three victims.
“There’s more,” Curtis said.
I knew what he was going to say, or at least suspected.
“My cousin was a paranormal. He didn’t want anyone knowing, not his family, not anyone. He refused to come here, refused to come out of the closet as it were.”
Rose reached across the table and laid a hand on his. Her eyes glowed golden, her new power filling the room with warmth. A tear fell down her cheek. "I'm so sorry.”
Curtis squeezed her hand and nodded. “The thing is, I just got a visit from Tyler’s mother, a kid I was recruiting for our school. He was a paranormal too, and his body was discovered this morning. His dad said it was an animal attack.”
The room went quiet as the ramifications of this news settled on us all.
Sam, who was likely reading everyone’s mind, broke the silence, looking at each of us. “You all think it’s deliberate? That someone is targeting paranormals? Killing paranormals?”
I didn’t have to read her mind to know her first thought was Ana, her child. And I knew we were all thinking about our school, a prime target for someone who was going after kids with paranormal abilities.
“We should call IPI,” Ocean said. IPI, or International Paranormal Investigations, was a top-secret agency that helped, and hunted, paranormals, depending on the circumstance. They were tasked with keeping law-abiding paranormals safe, and normals safe from more dangerous paranormals. Ocean had been recruited by them, but hadn’t left for her training yet.
Father Patrick shook his head. “Not yet. We know from past experience they won’t respond unless it’s pressing. And their idea of pressing and ours doesn’t always mesh. Plus, this is all circumstantial evidence.” He looked at Curtis. “I’m so sorry, son. Would you be willing to talk with your family and find out if they know anything? And maybe stop by the home of this other victim? Once we have more information, we can file a report.”
“If you'd like company, I could go with you to talk to both families,” Rose said. “Maybe I can help bring some healing, and we can see if they know more about what happened?"
Rose used to fear her power, a dark energy that sucked the life from others, sending souls to the equivalent of hell. My brother and I had experienced that fate, and she'd risked everything to come to a hideous demon dimension and save us. Now, in a twist of fate that finally got it right, and thanks to the sacrifice of a man I'll never like but can at least respect, she can use her powers for emotional healing.
As others offered Curtis condolences, Father Patrick ended our meeting with promises to resume the search for a name after these issues had been investigated.
Everyone shuffled into the hallway as students ran to their classes and teachers shouted to slow down. If not for the power each student here carried inside of them, it would look like a normal private school.
Rose was deep in conversation with Curtis as they walked out, but I stayed back to talk to Father Patrick. Once we were alone, I turned to face the old priest. "What's troubling you, Father?" Something had instigated this meeting and his nervous twitching.
He looked about to brush me off, but then sighed and gestured for me to sit with him.
I pulled out the chair and sat, waiting for him to speak.
"I received a letter," he said, "from the Vatican. They're sending a Bishop here."
This was not what I was expecting. "Why?" Father Patrick may have been a priest, but we didn't run anything close to a Catholic School.
He shrugged. "I don't know. But I worry. This school was set up to save these kids from an evil organization bent on genetically modifying them and renting them out as spies to the wealthy."
I'd heard the stories and still couldn't believe it. Sam's biological father had genetically modified babies on a global scale, collecting them and keeping them prisoner at their school. It was only when Sam, Drake and their friends discovered the truth that they destroyed the organization and gained their freedom. But Sam had already been impregnated with Ana against her knowledge and will. They'd still found a way to get their happily ever after, but had suffered so much to get here.
"What do the Catholic Church and the Vatican have to do with it?" I asked.
"They have quite a lot to do with it, my boy." He wiped at his eyes with a white handkerchief. "If they don't like what they see, they have the power to take this place away from us. And in light of recent events, if it is a shifter or paranormal creature killing these kids, they may take away much more."